Feds stand ready to help servicemembers with consumer financial woes
At the Warrior's Club on Camp Casey May 13, Holly Petraeus, (seated, second from left) director of the Office of Servicemember Affairs, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, outlines for Soldiers the agency's varied efforts to help servicemembers with their unique consumer financial challenges. Col. John M. Scott, (seated, second from right) Commander, U.S. Army Garrison Red Cloud and Area I, introduced Petraeus to the audience of more than 225 Soldiers. Petraeus told Soldiers to contact her office with their consumer complaints and related concerns.

CAMP CASEY -- Servicemembers should be on their guard against scammers and crooked businesses who target them for their money, and should report abuses to the authorities, a federal consumer protection official told Soldiers at Camp Casey May 13.

The official, Holly Petraeus, who heads the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's Office of Servicemember Affairs, made the comments at the Warrior's Club before a town hall audience of more than 225 Soldiers, mostly from the 2nd Infantry Division.

She is the wife of retired Gen. David Petraeus and in the course of her presentation to Soldiers drew on her longstanding familiarity with military life.

"We couldn't ask for a better advocate for our affairs when it comes to financial issues," Col. John M. Scott, Commander, U.S. Army Garrison Red Cloud and Area I, told the audience as he introduced Petraeus.

She opened her presentation with a joke that brought immediate laughter from her audience of young, mostly junior enlisted Soldiers.

"Good afternoon," she began. "Thanks for coming out. I won't ask if you are here voluntarily. I'm just glad you're in the seats."

She then turned to the purpose of her visit.

"I wanted to visit to tell you that there's an organization in Washington that's working for all of you and it may be one that you don't know about," she said.

The organization, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, began operation in 2011, with responsibility for enforcing federal consumer protection laws that had previously been the domain of seven separate agencies.

One of the Bureau's components is the Office of Servicemember Affairs, which Petraeus heads.

Her office has three main roles in helping servicemembers:
• Providing them the financial education they need to make better, informed consumer decisions.
• Monitoring their consumer complaints and seeking enforcement action when warranted.
• Working with other federal and state consumer agencies to ensure the needs of servicemembers are considered.

Petraeus encouraged Soldiers to ask her questions during the meeting, contact her office with consumer financial complaints and related concerns, and noted that part of her duties involve testifying before Congress.

"So I've partly come out here to tell you about what I'm doing, but I also want you to tell me what the issues are for you, so I can take those back to Congress and tell them the right answer."

Her office looks to protect servicemembers from an array of possible scams and other financial abuses that seek to victimize them, she said.

Petraeus offered a series of examples, including those of servicemembers who "sign really horrible contracts."

One young servicemember will be paying $3,600 for an iPad "because the monthly payment looked good. But they never looked at what's the total cost," she said.

And she'd seen contracts for laptops "that cost about $3,500 by the time all was said and done," she said.

In another instance, an Army Staff Sergeant borrowed $1,600, but the terms called for payments of $580 over 32 months.

"Yeah," said Petraeus, "do the math. It was a 400 percent interest rate. And on that $1,600 loan, by the time the contract…is done, he will have paid $15,000 in finance charges."

For Soldiers who want to do college study, whether during or after active-duty service, Petraeus had a special word of caution.

Some "for-profit" colleges see the servicemember as a "cash cow," she said.

"Some of them have been around for a while and they will give you a good education at a fair price," said Petraeus. "Others, frankly, will not. They see all of you as dollar signs in uniform and they want to sign you up."

Soldiers should ask questions when they size up a school, she said.

"Ask them, 'What's the graduation rate? How many people that actually start there get a degree?'…. Ask them how much it's going to cost and are your military benefits going to cover all of it. Then if it doesn't, how are you going to pay for the rest?"

Servicemembers should also pay close attention to whether a school is accredited nationally or regionally, said Petreaus.

"In many cases your credits will not transfer from a nationally accredited school to that regionally accredited school back home that you decide to go to when you get out," she said.

During a question period, audience members asked Petraeus about debt on car loans, the cost of cellphone contracts in Korea, and other consumer matters.

One Soldier told Petraeus his truck was repossessed before he entered the military and he's gotten nowhere trying to contact the company to resolve the matter.

"File a complaint with us at consumerfinance.gov and we'll see what we might be able to do," Petraeus told the Soldier, Spc. Sean Elmgren, 22, of the division's Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 1st Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Regiment, part of the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team.

"It's good to have a program like this that'll come out and talk to us," he said after the meeting.

"That way, guys like me, I'm sitting here in the back and I'm like, 'Oh, maybe they can answer this question for me,'" said Elmgren. "And she sure did."

Page last updated Wed May 15th, 2013 at 00:00